People's Champion? Rick Lazio Is a Wall Street Creature

His fingerprints are all over the recent economic collapse

Lazio joined a lobbying operation at JPMorgan Chase that included Stephen Ruhlen, who had just left a top job at Dick Cheney's side, where he was the vice president's liaison to Tom DeLay and his lobbyist friend Jack Abramoff. Awash in subprime mortgage securities, credit default swaps, and other "innovative" derivatives at the time of Lazio's hiring (it pulled back from its riskiest excesses shortly before the collapse), the bank was also besieged by lawsuits it eventually settled that were prompted by its duplicitous ties to Enron and other corporate scandals. During the years that Lazio oversaw JPMorgan Chase's lobbying unit, it retained a firm that featured DeLay's ex–general counsel, Carl Thorsen, as well as hiring a pack of other Republican lobbyists, including the former top aide to Senator Jim Bunning. This was Lazio's political family—Cheney had traveled to New York to do a fundraiser for Lazio, and DeLay had made Lazio an honorary Texan at a meeting of the House Texas GOP delegation, noted in the diaries.

While Lazio declined to answer Voice inquiries about his overall earnings in the past decade (or any other questions, even after his office asked that a list of them be e-mailed), the Albany Times Union reported that Lazio's 2008 JPMorgan Chase salary was $325,000, with a bonus of $1.3 million, at a time when the bank was getting billions in TARP funding. In 2009, when he took a leave from JPMorgan to run for governor eight months into the year, he collected a $260,000 salary and $300,000 bonus, a universe away from the House salary and the $13,000 in stock-option income that was his peak during his years as a public servant.

The nonprofit Forum says it lost its tax returns for Lazio's term prior to 2004, but the one filed publicly for that year shows that he was paid $902,120 for his two-thirds of a year in the job. When he left, his two replacements—one taking the CEO title and the other, president—were paid a combined $2.1 million. Not bad for pulling together two board meetings of 20 CEOs a year and doing $332,387 worth of conferences and meetings, as the tiny Forum staff reported for Lazio's last year.

AP Images
Lazio worked hard to pass the toxic 
law named after Phil Gramm.
AP Images
Lazio worked hard to pass the toxic law named after Phil Gramm.

This Wall Street gravy train moved Lazio on up to the Upper East Side and into a multimillion-dollar co-op with wood-burning fireplaces at the forbiddingly exclusive 14 East 90th Street, far away from the $290,000 Brightwater home he still owns in Suffolk. Citigroup's Sandy Weill and Alexander "Sandy" Treadwell, the millionaire chair of the State Republican Party, owned apartments in the building when Lazio bought in 2003.

JPMorgan Chase granted Lazio three mortgages on the apartment, all at interest rates lower than prevailing rates, the latest a refinancing that occurred last August. The first, highly favorable $700,000 mortgage was granted a year before Lazio went to work for the bank. No purchase price appears on public records. The Manhattan move has come back to haunt Lazio, as he now faces a challenge from Steve Levy, the current county executive in Suffolk who, despite his Democratic lineage, quickly won the backing of its Republican and Conservative bosses, replacing Suffolk's onetime favorite son.

Lazio's belief that his résumé fits the times is surreal, as if all that angers New Yorkers is Albany, when his employers over the last few years have included JPMorgan, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America and UBS, where Phil Gramm landed after his Senate servitude. In Lazio's view, David Paterson, Shelly Silver, and John Sampson are the only problematic New Yorkers, though he is now working on adding Andrew Cuomo to that list—while Cuomo has been exposing bank-bonus babies like Lazio to taxpayer delight for years.

Lazio's archive explains, in its own way, what would lead him to believe that this is his moment. The documents provide a window into a cosmetic career, where the only value is ambition, and every issue or relationship is fungible, well beyond but including the Wall Street shenanigans. A mishmash of entries depicts a vain and shallow man without anchoring principles, masking a breathtaking cynicism behind a brilliant smile, wavy dark hair, and telegenic earnestness.

One staffer, for example, messaged the other that Lazio's "bleaching kit" needed "to be picked up" at his Suffolk dentist's office. He once set aside two hours for a haircut and needed a full day of rest, according to one memo, to shoot a television commercial, but his schedule would often limit meetings, even with donors, to five minutes. In his seventh year in Congress, Lazio began taking speech lessons from a private tutor named Richard Greene in 1999, a match made by Lloyd Braun, a Lazio friend from Vassar who was then co-chair of ABC. Greene confirmed the lessons, noted in the logs, but declined to discuss what he taught Lazio.

Lazio's biggest electoral win was knocking off Democratic Congressman Tom Downey in 1992, using ABC footage of Downey jet-skiing on a Barbados junket. Yet Lazio himself took a half-dozen subsidized trips to Orlando, Palm Beach, and St. Thomas/Virgin Islands, sometimes with family in tow.

When a Republican congresswoman asked him in 1998 to join 156 co-sponsors, including three Republicans from New York, on a bill extending federal employment discrimination protections to gays, he declined, though he scrawled on the internal memo "tell them will vote for it." (It did not get out of committee.) The rationale was that he had "already been supportive of the gay community concerns pertaining to health care issues," meaning AIDS. Asked by the Long Island president of the Log Cabin Republicans to contact the Republican county executive at the time to support a $40,000 grant for a gay youth suicide prevention program, a top Lazio staffer suggested a call, not a letter, asking, "Why make a record?" Lazio checked the option: "Place a phone call."

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